Judith Bishop’s Interval appears just over a decade since the publication of her first book, also using a one-word title, Event (Salt, 2007). This gap seems far too long. Certainly, there have been two chapbooks in the intervening years – Alice Missing in Wonderland and Other Poems (2008), in the Wagtail series from Picaro Press, and Aftermarks (2012), in the Vagabond Rare Objects Series, – but no full-length collection. The impression is that Bishop works slowly and meticulously. Both Interval and Event are what some may call ‘slim volumes’, that is, in comparison to many.

It is also worth noting in this context that Bishop is, so far, the only poet to have won Australian Book Review’s Peter Porter Poetry Prize twice, in 2006 with the haunting ‘Still Life with Cockles and Shells’, which was published in Event, and in 2011 with ‘Openings’, a moving poem that now appears, with just one change to a stanza break, in Interval.

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  • Custom Article Title Jill Jones reviews 'Interval' by Judith Bishop
  • Contents Category Poetry
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    Judith Bishop’s Interval appears just over a decade since the publication of her first book, also using a one-word title, Event (Salt, 2007). This gap seems far too long. Certainly, there have been two chapbooks in the intervening years – Alice Missing in Wonderland and Other Poems (2008), in the Wagtail series ...

  • Book Title Interval
  • Book Author Judith Bishop
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio University of Queensland Press, $24.95 pb, 86 pp, 9780702260070

This is a playful, intelligent, unsettling series of stories, fourteen of them, collected from publications going back a few decades from 1987 until 2012 as well as, presumably, unpublished work. Due in part to this long span, the book traces back and forth through time. There is even a Sydney pre-Opera House (just) in one story, and various social and cultural artefacts and processes come and go.

For the most part, Skovron uses understated, non-flashy prose rather than, dare I say, ‘poetic’ prose, and these stories are the better for that. He is, of course, much more well-known as one of Australia’s pre-eminent poets. This is his first collection of short stories; he has previously published a novella, The Poet (2005). Not only does Skovron demonstrate talent with prose but he is also an artist; the book’s charming cover illustration, called ‘Clock’, is his own work as well.

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  • Custom Article Title Jill Jones reviews 'The Man Who Took To His Bed' by Alex Skovron
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    This is a playful, intelligent, unsettling series of stories, fourteen of them, collected from publications going back a few decades from 1987 until 2012 as well as, presumably, unpublished work. Due in part to this long span, the book traces back and forth through time. There is even a Sydney pre-Opera House (just) ...

  • Book Title The Man Who Took To His Bed
  • Book Author Alex Skovron
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Puncher & Wattmann, $26.95 pb, 152 pp, 9781922186973

The poetic epigraphs that introduce all three sections in Brink, Jill Jones’s tenth full-length poetry collection, are collaged fragments from the poems proper. Moodily, they skirt the edges of what’s to come: ‘I am to proliferate.’ The poems then, in all their multiplicity, evoke and explore being on the brink – of knowing, feeling, sensing, and making sense:

                         ... but there’s a feeling
that can’t be formalised or even spoken
as we pass in and out of and into again
the known, or the known knowns,
and the unknowns, the way things
brush past, or the way you fall
in haste, in love, what trickles onto
a porous path, as traverses of skin.
           (‘Data, Twigs, Memory Lapses’)

Jones is interested in ‘words that sound like words’, in how ‘Twigs make their Ts’. A poem is a construct that can talk of itself and the world, simultaneously: ‘It’s communication ... / though you don’t really know / if it’s a system of messaging, / or a type of presence.’ To Jones, it is both, in varying degrees.

The poem ‘Edge Against Sign’ alludes to this duality – of the sign and signified, these ‘pests of language’, the gap between them but their inseparability. The poem also wagers that past and present are not so easily delineated: all its phrases are sourced from Jones’s first book, The Mask and the Jagged Star (1992).

In ‘Speak Which’, Jones’s lyric mode is clear. The poem is an utterance: ‘words tear’ and ‘form / is tested / as leaves fall // not itself / but what it / does // shapes in / the mind breath / unsaid’. An unsettled feeling then emerges about writing place (and the allusion to country is deliberate): ‘trying to figure / landscape / and failing’. Antipodean poets have long occupied the land in their poetry, but as Jones points out, ‘who do we / think / we are?’

Jones, ‘being sneaky and queer within / and beyond spaces’, is occupied with the contradictions of the contemporary world – its beauty, how to live ‘without all the modest accounting’, versus our destruction of it: ‘We know plexiglass, expecto patronus / or police presence won’t save us’. Her poems are always ‘thinking the unthinkable today’. ‘[F]lowering and simply kidding’, she has a dry sense of humour – perhaps not unrelated to living in Adelaide – most evident in ‘Divination Isn’t What It Was’: ‘I went out among leaf litter that seemed glum / ... Is the solar system being hacked?’

In the first section, the poems draw images and ideas together breathlessly, list-like: they ‘spark and spit in the sky’. Some of these also split – literally down the middle – and shimmer/shimmy down the page. The second section continues with freewheeling poems, a number of which are knockouts, including ‘Our Epic Want’: ‘Raw music stunned us, it hurt more than love.’ In the final section, a range of notational, fragmentary experiments in sound and sense offer us a glimpse into the ‘shadow language’ of Jones’s process. These give way to more existential, elegiac poems that memorialise: ‘Our waxworks are dying ... We are terrifying But no longer awesome.’

Jill Jones new pic photo by Annette WillisJill Jones (photograph by Annette Willis)

 

The poems in Kate Middleton’s third full-length collection, Passage, cover much terrain: untrodden land, moors, refuse, days, time, utopia, empire, ships, exploration, travel, saints, science, science fiction, colour, art, artworks, and animals – rats and whales, especially, but also lions, the oldest living tortoise, and a gynandromorph butterfly. Like her favoured rats, Middleton has ‘success at roving’ between these topics and themes: ‘(Follow them all the way down; refuse maps)’. Middleton trusts the intuitive, ‘go on your nerve’ approach, as Frank O’Hara put it, to writing: ‘The body bears the text / of distances covered.’ Poems, stanzas, phrases become islands: ‘A Lilliput of words and meadows.’

In Passage, she writes charms, elegies, centos, erasures, eulogies, ekphastic poems. The sections are split into ‘Past’, ‘Present’, ‘Future’, and an additional ‘Future’. Within these, poems aren’t wedded to chronology. Sci-fi crops up in the past and fourteenth-century fantastical travel-writer Sir John Mandeville descends into the future: ‘Paradise is / a loch / – and it / has / no bottom.’ Middleton revels in getting lost: ‘Lost is – and is not – a contagious / panic.’ Many of the poems work ‘in the borderland of dream // and memory // in the empty space of light between maps // of possible pleasure’.

The present is fleeting: ‘Only the ever-changing calligraphy / of waves sweeping the shore / records the moment. Then it’s gone.’ There is, tellingly, only one poem in the ‘Present’ section. There, and elsewhere, ‘memory is what is present ’.

Passage mines dozens of mostly textual sources to then create ‘puzzle patchworks’. The recurring sources (Dan Beachy-Quick, Siri Hustvedt, S.P.B. Mais’s This Unknown Island (1932), BBC science news, art, varying texts about rats or whales) intertwine throughout so that themes interlock and give the whole form: ‘the always-sharp meeting / point of water tumbles land / into shape’.

The ‘Watching Science Fiction’ sequence, which takes the television series Fringe as its inspiration, dovetails nicely with the poems about science: ‘When you turn to your / science to explain it nothing pierces the mystery of loss / ... In some unwritten future there’s a law of physics to explain it.’

Kate MiddletonKate Middleton

 

Grief and loneliness feature in these assemblages of found traces left by others: ‘for what is loneliness but // awareness I am human? ... What is that awareness / but an act of praise?’ To end the poem ‘Prayer for Any Morning’, Middleton writes: ‘cherish the broken / monuments / days’. To Middleton, the poem is a monument, no matter how broken, in praise of imaginative exploration. Negotiating her own position toward her interests against a backdrop of climate change – ‘toxic hailstones rain down upon you’ – Middleton finds passage through time, text, tradition: ‘With all that elegiac grace you clear a space for yourself.’

Both Jones and Middleton approach a kind of ‘pure lyric poetry’, as Marina Tsvetaeva defined it: both are performative, oral, musical, and foreground the lyric ‘now’ or moment of utterance. And yet both assemble their poems, much like collages. One poet is perhaps more sceptical and rightly critical of the world, and one is more in awe.

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  • Custom Article Title Toby Fitch reviews 'Brink' by Jill Jones and 'Passage' by Kate Middleton
  • Contents Category Poetry
  • Custom Highlight Text

    The poetic epigraphs that introduce all three sections in Brink, Jill Jones’s tenth full-length poetry collection, are collaged fragments from the poems proper. Moodily, they skirt the edges of what’s to come: ‘I am to proliferate.’ The poems then, in all their multiplicity, evoke and explore being on the brink – of knowing, feeling ...

  • Book Title Brink
  • Book Author Jill Jones
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Five Islands Press, $25.95 pb, 99 pp, 9780734053640
  • Book Title 2 Passage
  • Book Author 2 Kate Middleton
  • Biblio 2 Giramondo, $24 pb, 128 pp, 9781925336436
  • Book Cover 2 Small Book Cover 2 Small
  • Author Type 2 Author
  • Book Cover 2 Book Cover 2
  • Book Cover 2 Path images/ABR_Online_2018/January-February_2018/Passage.jpg
Sunday, 26 November 2017 15:48

Books of the Year 2017

Michelle de Kretser

Pulse Points Books of the YearSybille Smith’s Mothertongue (Vagabond) is a thoughtful, brief memoir-in-essays, chiefly concerned with growing up between two places, Vienna and Sydney, and two languages, German and English. It speaks of loss and carves out recoveries (partial, provisional) in moving, lucid prose; a small gem.

In a big year for Australian novels, here’s a shout out for two collections of stories. Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points (Text Publishing, reviewed in ABR 9/17) consolidates her reputation as a remarkable young writer. Her stories are effortlessly global yet strongly anchored in place. They testify to Down’s remarkable powers of observation and her ability to create bleak but engaging worlds – the longer tales are especially potent. Tony Birch’s Common People (UQP, 9/17) also traffics in characters in difficult circumstances, but Birch is tender as well as unsentimental. This sturdily crafted collection, Birch’s best yet, offers illuminating, sometimes harrowing narratives that sing of solidarity and humour in hardscrabble lives.

Geordie Williamson

Draw Your Weapons Books of the YearIn a world where nations are more likely to militarise than to engage in dialogue, to build walls rather than open borders, Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons (Text Publishing, 8/17) is a formally elegant and intellectually rigorous argument for peace. Not a pacifist manifesto so much as a collage built from paradox and juxtaposition – from encounters with images of terror, war, and torture – whose total implication is clear. We in the affluent West cannot remain unsullied by refusing to look at evidence of the multiplying human disasters around us. Sentilles’ book inspires us to be more than we are, to live beyond our historical moment. Not a call to arms so much as a call to the writers’ pen.

Brenda Niall

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin Books of the YearIn too many biographies of political leaders the private self is lost, or not even sought. Like John Murphy’s subtle portrait of Herbert Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16), which revealed a complex human being, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text Publishing, 9/17) explores our second prime minister’s career with full attention to his intense inner life and family relationships. Her title points to the puzzles, but Brett doesn’t simplify; she ponders, suggests, dramatises. Closely observed and psychologically persuasive, this is more than a life-and-times; it is a life. Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible (Viking) looks like an elegy for small-town America, but the degree of loneliness Strout exposes puts paid to any easy notion of community. Strout’s interconnected short stories reveal the isolation of people who have known one another since childhood. As well as lies and secrets, gossip and harsh judgement, there are astonishing moments of compassion. A brilliant, disturbing work.

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Tom Griffiths

Call of the Reed Warbler ABR OnlineCharles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture – a new earth (UQP, 10/17) is a revolutionary and lyrical story of a farmer’s journey towards ecological literacy. It is learned, wise, practical, and full of hope. Another impressive big book is Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s Like Nothing on this Earth: A literary history of the wheatbelt (UWA Publishing, 6/17). It is a brilliant work of scholarship that effectively establishes a new genre; I hope it inspires more regional literary ecologies. Don’t miss Kieran Finnane’s honest, powerful, and sensitive report from the streets and camps of Alice Springs, Trouble: On trial in Central Australia (UQP). This is journalism of the highest calibre. And I love Alex Miller’s new novel, The Passage of Love (Allen & Unwin, 11/17), which delivers an enthralling fusion of fiction and memoir.

James McNamara

Home Fire Books of the YearI should nominate Twitter, because I spent much of the year in America reading and shouting at it. Offline, I hugely admired Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury, 10/17), a magnificent reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone that traces the impact of a brother’s radicalisation on his British-Pakistani family. Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful, magical realist Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) deftly humanises the refugees that Western governments are deftly trying to ignore. Robert Webb’s memoir, How Not To Be A Boy (Canongate, 12/17), is both hilarious and lip-wobblingly poignant. And, without meaning to sound too much of a (tweedy, threadbare) jetsetter, I missed the 2010 Australian release of Ashley Hay’s The Body In The Clouds (Washington Square) while I was living in London, but I delighted in its publication here in the States this year. So I’m going to count it for 2017 and direct some positive shouting towards Hay’s brilliant, multilayered work: ‘huzzah!’

Sheila Fitzpatrick

October Books of the YearIn China Miéville’s October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 10/17) – the liveliest of the centenary publications – the dramatic events of 1917 in Petrograd are related with some wistful regret that things didn’t turn out better. Sarah Dowse’s As The Lonely Fly (For Pity’s Sake, 6/17) is a twentieth-century Jewish family saga encompassing Russia, America, and Palestine – a moving story that makes you think. Chris Hilliard’s The Littlehampton Libels. A miscarriage of justice and a mystery about words in 1920s England (OUP) is a real-crime scholarly history, but Agatha Christie fans should love it. It’s Christie’s world, and those dogged and courteous police officers turn out to be real.

Paul Giles

A long way from home Books of the YearDennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought (Princeton) is a lively and readable account of how two Scottish philosophers conspired to subvert many nostrums of Western culture during the late Enlightenment era. Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home (Hamish Hamilton, 11/17) is an important novel that treats relations between white Australian and Indigenous cultures through a framework of dark postmodernist humour. Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin, 10/17) sensually incarnates her themes of travel and displacement in a work of fiction that brilliantly evokes the climate, smells, and cuisine of Sydney. And Tracey Moffatt: My horizon, edited by Natalie King (Thames & Hudson) brings together Moffatt’s provocative visual exhibition for the 2017 Venice Biennale with a collection of essays from Alexis Wright and others that testifies to the enduring importance of Moffatt’s oeuvre.

Sarah Holland-Batt

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky Books of the YearFay Zwicky’s death was keenly felt among poets and readers of poetry earlier this year, so it is a bittersweet joy to see all of her terse, tough, magnificently spiky poems gathered in one volume. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky (UWAP) reveals a poet whose oeuvre was the product of what she calls ‘the dissenting imagination’; her poems concern themselves deeply with the ethical realm, but also grapple profoundly with agnosticism and doubt. This meticulously edited collection offers all seven of Zwicky’s books, along with a substantial selection of new and uncollected poems at the end; it is a pleasure to be able to read her life’s work in order and trace how her relentlessly contemporary late style developed. ‘Let us talk of now,’ she said in her masterwork ‘Kaddish’, and her poems follow suit. This indelible collection will be treasured everywhere by those who love poetry.

Susan Sheridan

The Unknown Judith Wright Books of the YearAs one of the Miles Franklin Award judges, I spend the first part of the year reading Australian novels published in the previous year, after which I set out to catch up on other contemporary fiction. Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire, bowled me over: it is a brilliant rewriting of the story of Antigone, set mainly in London, about two families destroyed by jihad and anti-Muslim politics. Apart from fiction, two new titles from university presses – Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright (UWA Publishing, 11/16) and Thea Astley: Selected poems, edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP, 11/17) – provide fascinating insights into the earliest work of these two giants of twentieth-century Australian literature.

Frank Bongiorno

A Fuhrer for a Father Books of the YearTwo books exploring father–son relationships in the context of changing masculinities and gay life stand out. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (Picador) is as profound as you would expect from this Man Booker winner. Beginning in Oxford in 1940 and stretching over seventy years, Hollinghurst lovingly evokes period detail without allowing it to overwhelm the absorbing drama of lived intimacies. Jim Davidson’s memoir, A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (NewSouth, 9/17), by one of Australia’s leading cultural historians and biographers, explores with enviable subtlety the connections between British imperial rule and the patriarchy of a man inside a family. Judith Brett’s excellent The Enigmatic Mr Deakin introduces this Federation-era giant to a modern audience: a timely reminder of the achievements and failings of a century ago, and perfect summer reading for any Australian politician whose aspirations rise above seat-warming.

Bernadette Brennan

Lincoln in the Bardo Books of the YearI am currently judging an Australian literary award, so will refrain from nominating some of this year’s brilliant Australian fiction. Melanie Joosten’s A Long Time Coming: Essays on old age (Scribe) is an important, moving collection of essays on ageing, mortality, and the ethics of writing. Arundhati Roy’s huge – in every sense of the word – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, 6/17) and George Saunders’s lyrical Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 3/17) extend the novel’s form superbly. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire takes us deep inside the psychology of a disaffected Muslim youth, and draws us into a complex world of loss, pain, filial piety, and (largely destructive) duty. My favourite book of the year is Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible. What a thrill to be returned to the richly extended world of Lucy Barton and her narrative people.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

‘I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved’, to use the words of one of its ghostly narrators, by George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. While it is a novel that is bold in its formal innovations, these never overpower the simple, heartrending premise of a father’s raw grief for the death of his eleven-year-old son. Closer to home, I had my unfairly high expectations met by Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (Picador, 8/17), in which the problems of reconciliation between settler and indigene in Australia were slowly and slyly circled, then seized with breathtaking precision. Both novels rose to a similar challenge, the challenge of all serious literature, which is to narrate the unnarratable.

 

Felicity Plunkett

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Books of the YearMy list begins with the latest dazzling novel by Ali Smith. Winter (Hamish Hamilton) is the second in a proposed series of four seasonal novels and follows the crisp and crackling Autumn (Hamish Hamilton, 1/17). Set between life and death, closeness and solitude, the mythological and the contemporary, it shimmers with snow crystals, etymology, and thaw. Smith’s winter is ‘an exercise in how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again’. I found Arundhati Roy’s sprawling, magnificent The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a demanding and compelling assemblage of ‘a shattered story’. I have begun Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come and am thrilled by the shape of her every sentence and her acute wit and insight. And Reinhard Kleist’s Nick Cave: Mercy on me (SelfMadeHero) is a rollicking confabulation exploring the Nick Cave universe, all myth, slash, and swagger.

Shannon Burns

The Last Days of Jeanne DArc Books of the YearI particularly enjoyed three works of Australian fiction: Kim Scott’s Taboo combines aesthetic and moral seriousness with unusual success, and is a worthy follow-up to his two Miles Franklin-winning novels. His is a truly generative and urgent brand of fiction. Tony Birch’s Common People is a collection of stylistically unadorned yet artfully wrought stories. Birch hones in on protagonists and communities rarely glimpsed in contemporary Australian literature. Ali Alizadeh’s The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo, 10/17) is lightly experimental and emotionally rich – the kind of novel that invites and rewards close attention without forcing the matter.

On the non-fiction front, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America (Allen & Unwin) – which documents the social history of the ‘waste’ people transported from Britain to the United States – was particularly eye-opening.

James Walter

No End of a Lesson Books of the YearGeorge Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, a cascade of voices observing, mourning, and denying death, is a literary high wire act. The peril of an adventurous literary conceit teetering so close to extremes as to threaten collapse kept me reading: the most arresting novel of the year. Judith Brett achieves something rare in political biography: a synthesis of the public life with the beliefs, doubts, private struggles, and spiritual inquiry that made The Enigmatic Mr Deakin our most intriguing prime minister. She rescues Alfred Deakin from recent ahistorical readings of his ‘Australian settlement’. Not only politically minded but also general readers perplexed by the collapse of confidence in public institutions should read Stuart Macintyre, André Brett, and Gwylim Croucher’s No End of a Lesson: Australia’s unified system of higher education (Melbourne University Press) A compelling narrative history of John Dawkins’s revolution in higher education, it is a revelatory instantiation of the intentions, achievements, and unforeseen consequences of recent policy reform.

Jen Webb

Their Brilliant Careers Books of the YearTara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet), a wonderfully angry, self-deprecatingly funny yet tragic collection of poems, reflects on women’s lives in fiction and in history. Bergin gives voice to famous people, fairytales, and folklore in her rhythmic, beautifully disturbing collection.

Vahni Capildeo’s chapbook Seas and Trees (Recent Work Press) is crammed with vivid images, and language that shimmers and sings. It presents a landscape of possible universes where ‘trees had evolved to eat other trees’, where the familiar sea becomes strange and unknowable. Supple, subtle, marvellous.

Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is probably the funniest literary novel since Tristram Shandy. This unmerciful lampooning of ‘extraordinary Australian writers’ – barely disguised, bizarrely intertwined – doubles as a parodic, playful workshop in OzLit, and a portrait of the literary community and its politics.

David McCooey

The Memory of Music Books of the YearAndrew Ford’s memoir of his extraordinary life in music, The Memory of Music (Black Inc.), seems somehow effortless, but it’s also profound, deeply moving, and often very funny. The ‘composer’s memoir’ might be a niche category, but Ford’s is a classic of the genre.

In Australian poetry, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows what an uncompromising and playful poet Zwicky was. Meanwhile, I loved Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf). Only ninety pages long, Manguso’s book brilliantly extends the literary possibilities of the ancient form of the aphorism. And talking of brevity and renewal, Fleur Jaeggy’s wafer-thin These Possible Lives (New Directions) reinvents the biographical essay. In Jaeggy’s hands, the lives of John Keats, Thomas de Quincey, and Marcel Schwob become nightmarish and uncanny prose poems. Happily, the year also saw the appearance of a new collection of Jaeggy’s stories, I Am the Brother of XX (New Directions).

Fiona Wright

One of my favourite books this year felt like a call to arms: Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy (Scribe). Doyle’s book is about how difficult it is for our generation to come to terms with our own adulthood, because so many of the markers of that stage – a house, a stable career, a marriage – are so often unavailable to us; the book seemed to articulate something (some things) that I’d been feeling, vaguely, for years. It’s smart and funny and fierce, but never angry or divisive – it isn’t interested in the intergenerational slanging wars that so often categorise this kind of discussion in the media (there’s nary an avocado toast in sight), rather, in a much more personal muddling through that’s somehow still hopeful and affirming and bold.

James Ley

Age of Anger Books of the YearThis year I particularly enjoyed reading Laurent Binet’s witty and irreverent novel The 7th Function of Language (Vintage), a parodic thriller that pokes fun at the influential cohort of French philosophers and literary critics (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, et al.) whose work colonised the humanities in the latter decades of the last century. In a rather more serious vein, I also enjoyed thinking about the arguments proposed in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A history of the present (Penguin), which seeks to understand the political volatility of our own time by tracing its origins all the way back to the eighteenth century. It is an impassioned and rather narrowly focused book that draws some long bows, but one that nevertheless contains important insights.

My final hat-tip is to Wayne Macauley’s Some Tests (Text Publishing), a subtle and quietly moving novel about illness and death. Macauley’s stylised and artfully paced narrative, which gradually takes on a dreamlike quality, is a fine example of his ability to evoke the inchoate sense of dissatisfaction and existential disquiet that lurks beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Nicholas Jose

The Windy Season Books of the YearI loved the mix of vaunting ambition, vendetta, and sheer madness in Their Brilliant Careers, Ryan O’Neill’s wicked re-imagining of Australian literary history. A weird mob, these great writers. O’Neill acknowledges Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas as essential background, and Vivian Darkbloom walks on wonderfully from Nabokov. Satire is its own reward. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is darkly comedic, too, combining formal inventiveness with a poker face in a particularly sharp collection of short stories. ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ is surely a classic. Then there is Sam Carmody’s The Windy Season (Allen & Unwin, 11/16), an emotionally charged novel that kept me awake at night, raw and self-scrutinising in its exploration of the ‘toxic masculinity’ in a West Australian fishing town, scarier than any shark.

Jill Jones

Equipment for Living Books of the YearMany terrific Australian poetry books have been released this year – how to choose? I was impressed by volumes from many small, indeed, micro publishers, such as Sydney’s Subbed In. But Alison Croggon’s New and Selected Poems 1991–2017 (Newport Street Books) is a long overdue highlight, a deliberate reconfiguration of her poetry, thus, a ‘new’ work. Croggon, again, shows us how to do things with lyric in ways I can only envy. Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives reads like meticulous yet dreamlike collage. The essay on John Keats is worth the price of admission alone. Equipment for Living: On poetry and pop music (Simon & Schuster) by Michael Robbins is an intense, if at times overheated, exploration of the consolations of poetry and music. He’ll never get me to love metal, but his Basho-to-Rhianna ‘playlist’ is a smart coda.

Mark Edele

The Unwomanly Face of War Books of the YearEvgeny Finkel’s eloquent Ordinary Jews: Choice and survival during the Holocaust (Princeton) shows how serious historical research can benefit from the perspective of a political scientist. Claire L. Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, community, and Soviet identity, 1917–1991 (Cornell) is a landmark in the history of disability and the Soviet welfare state. A stunning first book, it covers the entire Soviet experience from a thought-provoking perspective. Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin, 11/17) was published in Russian in 1985 and in a hard-to-get English translation in 1988. This stunning oral history remains unsurpassed. Finally, it is back in print. Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon Books), finally, makes short work of scientific sexism. Male evolutionary biologists sometimes claim that men evolved to be promiscuous because they can, allegedly, make 100 babies a year with 100 different women. The schedule involved would be punishing, as Fine points out.

Morag Fraser

Light and Shadow Books of the Year Australians should long remember Mark Colvin – for his authoritative ABC voice (its British modulations raised Bob Hawke’s hackles) and his exemplary integrity as both radio presenter and foreign correspondent. So the publication of Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a spy’s son (Melbourne University Press, 3/17), a few months before Colvin’s untimely death, was an unexpected bonus – revealing the extraordinary life behind that Radio National sangfroid. Colvin, committed journalist and seeker after truth, was the loving – and loved – son of a Cold War MI6 spy. I found his story psychologically complex and professionally inspiring.

Alex Miller’s new novel The Passage of Love is capacious, wise, and startlingly honest about human frailty and the permutations of love over time. Frankly autobiographical, it is also a work of fully achieved fiction, ripe with experience, double-voiced, peopled with unpredictable men and women, and set in Miller landscapes that characteristically throb with life.

Glyn Davis

An Odysee Books of the YearFor sympathy and insight, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a welcome contribution to analysis of Australian politics. A difficult subject, often deliberately elusive, is captured with skill. Through close and compelling reading of Deakin’s private writing, Brett brings to life his political thinking and spiritual wrestling. An important book.

For sheer reading pleasure, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: a father, a son, and an epic (Knopf) is compelling. This classical scholar leads us through a semester teaching The Odyssey with his father in the classroom, reflecting on parallels between Odyssey and Telemachus while he displays the hidden weaving in Homer’s text.

Alice Oswald is a precise and powerful poet. Her latest collection, Falling Awake (W.W. Norton), is about change in the natural world, with reflections that speak to motion among people. The opening poem about rain, ‘A Short History of Falling’, approaches perfection.

Anna MacDonald

Blind Spot Books of the YearA number of books have remained with me this year. Teju Cole’s captivating collection, Blind Spot (Faber & Faber, 11/17) rewards slow reading. Cole’s photographs are presented in abstract relation to short texts that read as part prose poem, part metaphysical investigation, and part memory fragment. The whole is often heart-stopping. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is challenging in the most necessary sense. A polyphonic epic, this novel incorporates stories of hijra, Kashmiri rebels, Guajarati Muslims, and is clearly a counterpoint to Roy’s political activism. Beverley Farmer’sThis Water: Five tales (Giramondo, 6/17) is a lyrical and resonantly interwoven rewriting of myth, fairytale, and folklore. Farmer’s last work, This Water affirms her place among Australian literature’s pre-eminent stylists. And Eley Williams’s collection, Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press), playful and genuinely original, is a joy to read.

Gregory Day

Staying with the Trouble Books of the YearArundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been misread by some critics as being untidy and too polemical. But well-kept gloom or neat literary dystopias won’t satisfy this reading heart. Roy has said that her return to fiction was prompted by a frustration at ‘winning the argument but losing the battle’. Well, her return has produced the most virtuosic and emotionally affecting response to our era’s profit-driven barbarities that I know of. In many ways it makes real some of the ideas prescribed by ground-breaking Californian academic Donna Haraway in her Staying With The Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke). Like Roy, Haraway is responding directly to our age with what could be described as a permacultural approach to organising human society. Staying With The Trouble sits alongside Charles Massy’s wonderful The Call of The Reed Warbler as the most regenerative non-fiction stimulants I digested this year.

Patrick Allington

Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons, a word collage, is a complex and original reaction to violence, warfare, and conscientious objection: I’m still thinking about it, still dipping back into it. Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a reminder that meticulous scholarship can also be elegantly written. Kim McGrath’s Crossing the Line: Australia’s secret history in the Timor Sea (Redback) chronicles decades of Australian misbehaviour, notwithstanding developments since the book was published in August 2017. The quarterly Mekong Review continues to impress with its mix of Southeast Asian-related criticism, analysis, reportage, fiction, poetry, and more.

Susan Wyndham

A writing life Books of the YearWe’ve had a feast of Helen Garner with her reissued Stories and True Stories (Text Publishing) for her seventy-fifth birthday, and Bernadette Brennan’s ingenious A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (Text Publishing, 5/17), which gets around the subject’s resistance to biography by viewing her life through her writing, as Garner herself does. Michelle de Kretser warns that The Life to Come may be her last novel. If so, I will miss her mastery of metaphor, her laser insight into the yearnings and pretensions of characters – writers, shopkeepers, travellers; friends, lovers, neighbours – and her scrutiny at once of the domestic minutiae and the global context of their lives.

Living with a bird-watcher, I welcomed The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al. (CSIRO Publishing, 10/17) as a gorgeous lure to spend more time in nature.

Andrew Fuhrmann

The Last Garden Books of the YearI am enthusiastic about the two new Fleur Jaeggy translations published by New Directions this year – a collection of essays called These Possible Lives and a collection of stories called I Am the Brother of XX. Everyone seems to be talking about this enigmatic Swiss writer, now in her late seventies, and with good reason. Two Australian novels stand out. The first, Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden (Text, 6/17), is a cut black gem of a book: beautiful, compact, and sinister. The other, Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, overflows with intelligent, incisive observations about identity, imagination, and privilege. I am currently working my way through The Tracker (Giramondo) by Alexis Wright, and it’s proving something of a revelation. It’s both an exhaustive account of the life and work of activist Tracker Tilmouth and, crucially, an experimental form of ‘collective’ memoir.

Beejay Silcox

Drawing Sybylla Books of the YearMy literary heart belongs to the rule breakers – to the form smashers and narrative knotters. George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won me over early and easily this year with his fragmented tale of Abraham Lincoln’s transcendent grief for his lost son. A novel haunted by its spectral cast, but also by the ghost of an American future yet to come. Sarah Sentilles’ tender collage essay Draw Your Weapons was an unexpected marvel: equal parts treatise, history, meditation, and prayer. Her premise – that art can vitiate violence – is unapologetically idealistic and deeply necessary. Closer to home, Odette Kelada’s début novel, Drawing Sybylla (UWA Publishing, 12/17), was a mercurial wonder, illuminating the inner lives of Australia’s women writers. And finally, The Sarah Book (Tyrant Books) – an almighty wallop of a book. I wouldn’t have encountered its author, West Virginian Scott McClanahan, had I not lived just across the state line – I’m deeply glad I did.

Bronwyn Lea

Lionel Fogarty Books of the YearRobert Hass’s handsome Little Book on Form: An exploration into the formal imagination of poetry (Ecco) begins: ‘A single line is a naked thing. It is both light and heavy. It is, obviously, the basic unit of all lyric forms.’ I could read his prose all night long. One of the contemporary masters of the line is Alice Oswald, whose Falling Awake is ever awake to the repetitions of the natural world. In a hat-tip to Wallace Stevens, ‘Slowed-Down Blackbird’ ends with her blackbird on the edge ‘trying over and over its broken line’. Also in pride of place on my bookshelf are The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky and Lionel Fogarty: Selected poems 1980–2017 (re.press). ‘Do yourself a favour’, Fogarty says borrowing from a Stevie Wonder song – ‘educate your mind’.

Marilyn Lake

The most imaginative Australian history at present comes from young women, who locate our past in a wider world. Sophie Loy-Wilson’s Australians in Shanghai: Race, rights and nation in Treaty Port China (Routledge), an evocative account of the transnational lives and chaotic mobility that challenged the White Australia Policy, prompts us to rethink national history. Katherine Ellinghaus’s fine study, Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and assimilation policy (Nebraska) digs deep into American archival sources to show how ideas about ‘mixed-blood’ facilitated the white take-over of Indian land. In locating her subject in a broader consideration of settler colonialism, Ellinghaus helps us to understand the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Further afield, I recommend Harvard historian David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A history in ideas (Yale). It reminds us that civil wars are now the most common kind of warfare and refugees – including the almost five million from Syria – their most vulnerable victims.

John Hawke

Fibrils Books of the YearMichel Leiris’s Fibrils (Yale) is the third and latest volume in Lydia Davis’s translations of Rules of the Game, his ground-breaking experiment in ‘creative non-fiction’. A meditation on the relationship between literature and politics, set against the 1950s background of a visit to Mao’s China, Leiris’s self-excoriating writing includes a description of his own suicide attempt. This year saw the first visit to Australia by legendary US anthologist, Jerome Rothenberg: a new and expanded fiftieth-anniversary edition of Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (California), described by Nick Cave as ‘the greatest anthology of poetry ever created’, has just appeared. Among local poetry, Lionel Fogarty’s Selected Poems gathers the best work of this important Indigenous poet in a single volume. Also recommended are three volumes by younger authors, Matthew Hall’s First Fruits (Cordite), Bella Li’s Argosy (Vagabond), and Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo), each of which indicates intriguing new directions for our literature.

Catherine Noske

The Museum of Modern Love Books of the YearI was fascinated this year by Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin), and thought it a deserving winner of the Stella Prize. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Alexis Wright’s ‘collective memoir’ The Tracker, which is creative and important, challenging expectations of the biographical form. Weaving several voices together in a unique cultural history focused on the life of Tracker Tilmouth, Wright’s work is testament to the power of Indigenous modes of storytelling. Finally, this year’s poetry titles from UWA Publishing have been exciting; of the eight offerings from their series, Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure stood out for me. Separately from UWA Publishing came The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, poignantly released only days before Fay passed away. Edited with love and subtlety by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, it is a rich body of work from an important poet.

Suzy Freeman-Greene

On John Marsden Books of the YearIn Being Here: The life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Text Publishing), French author Marie Darrieussecq animates the short life of a passionate German artist with vivid, spare prose. The first woman to paint herself naked and pregnant, Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, at the age of thirty-one, soon after giving birth. This taut biography, written in the present tense, has the urgency and poignancy of the best novels.

In Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles reflects on war, art, the ethics of looking, and how we should respond to the violence governments enact in our name. Sentilles mounts her argument with an accumulation of detail, employing metaphor rather than polemic. Her examination of drone warfare is especially powerful.

Alice Pung’s On John Marsden (Black Inc.) is ostensibly a tribute to an author of Young Adult novels. But this wise, political, heartfelt essay is about so much more.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

The Trauma Cleaner Books of the YearMohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West uses an unexpected fantasy device to disrupt a mode of realism so precise and sharply focused that it would feel like reportage if not for some truly breathtaking writing. His style builds ideas into its very grammar, and gives its account of a world in conflict an extra dimension of meaning and reflection — and sometimes a horrible beauty as well. Closer to home, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (Text Publishing) is a superbly written book about the redoubtable Sandra Pankhurst and her work as a trauma cleaner: someone who cleans up after hoarders, murders, meth labs, and suicides. This is the startling life story of Pankhurst, a trans woman with a heart the size of Uluru, written in Krasnostein’s irresistibly warm, frank, intelligent voice as she describes sites of sadness and horror that take the reader straight to the dark heart of the human condition.

Geoff Page

Transparencies Books of the YearTo narrow the excellent new Australian poetry collections I’ve read so far this year down to four is an almost arbitrary exercise. Among them, however, would have to be Clive James’s unerringly formal and poignant Injury Time (Picador). A comparable technical achievement is Stephen Edgar’s Transparencies (Black Pepper, 8/17). Edgar’s cleverly rhymed poems often end in a single powerful image, leaving us with an awareness of the poem as a resonant whole. A third highly formal book is Euclid’s Dog by Jordie Albiston (GloriaSMH). It’s a pleasure to be carried along by her unfailing metres – and to be surprised by the unpredictable internal rhymes which have so long been a part of her armoury. Melinda Smith has an innate feeling for irony and humour but can also produce poems of extreme tenderness and emotional depth. Her new collection, Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt Street Poetry), displays all of these and more.

Jane Sullivan

Half Wild Books of the YearSometimes a year produces a novel that is head and shoulders above everything else, and for me that was George Saunders’s wonderfully weird Lincoln in the Bardo. It reads like a play of fragments performed by ghosts; it weaves historical accounts, fiction and mythology into an inextricable tangle; it is outrageously grotesque, satirical, comical, scary, and poignant. How daring a writer he is: and how well he shows our lack of daring, our skill at deluding ourselves, even beyond death.

Plenty of bold new Australian writing, but perhaps the standout was a first novel that dared to tackle a rich but hugely challenging subject. Pip Smith’sHalf Wild (Allen & Unwin, 12/17) transforms the true story of a transgender man accused of murdering his wife into something far beyond the sensational: it is a sensitive examination of a secret life that for all its subtlety also conjures a sense of rollicking adventure.

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    To celebrate the best books of 2017 Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser, Susan Wyndham, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Jane Sullivan, Tom Griffiths, Mark Edele, and Brenda Niall.

Jennifer Maiden’s latest book, The Metronome, is essentially part of a series that could be dated to the appearance of Friendly Fire in 2005, if not further back. While it may not be a series in the sense of a life-poem, Maiden’s ongoing production of this sequence of books carries an impression of vocation or serious commitment, rather than simply poems-as-project.

There are continuing characters in Maiden’s work, recurring structures (the dialogue between characters of the past and the present being chief among these, such as the ongoing one between Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt), and a fearless interrogation of the moral complexities of our age, which allows the books to hinge on a dialectic of voicings, between dialogic/plural, and a more singular individual voice.

Of course, a reader, especially a reader new to Maiden’s work, might question the validity of her approach, especially with respect to the dialogue poems. We cannot know what any of these current or historical figures really think. Yet, our histories and thinking, and the current media, are full of presumptions, falsities, rushes to judgement, so it is more than simply refreshing to encounter another way of speaking about and through such personae. Maiden sets up a place for an ethical as well as aesthetic encounter; sets up a way of learning how to think about these issues. And that way is through poetry, through lines, stanzas, description, tropes, sonic effects, through dialogue and event.

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  • Custom Article Title Jill Jones reviews 'The Metronome' by Jennifer Maiden
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    Jennifer Maiden’s latest book, The Metronome, is essentially part of a series that could be dated to the appearance of Friendly Fire in 2005 ...

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  • Biblio Giramondo $24 pb, 96 pp, 9781925336214
Friday, 23 September 2016 16:07

'Alarms' by Jill Jones

Miracles are not like tempests.
Furlongs are not like hedgerows
though they come close.

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    Miracles are not like tempests.
    Furlongs are not like hedgerows
    though they come close ...

Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:54

Jill Jones is Poet of the Month

WHICH POETS HAVE MOST INFLUENCED YOU?

Contemporary influences include C.D. Wright, Peter Gizzi, Vahni Capildeo, and Harryette Mullen. I have learnt much from the great Danish poet Inger Christensen. George Oppen, Gertrude Stein, Frank O'Hara, and John Ashbery are always important. As ever, Baudelaire, Dickinson, and Rimbaud.

ARE POEMS 'INSPIRED' OR MAINLY THE WORK OF CRAFT?

Poems are made things, first of all. In that sense, craft; poets are makers. Words and possibilities in structure are things that emerge in making. So, I guess, the inspiration, or art part. It's a kind of thinking around the materials. Refining the initial structure can take time, years even, or sometimes the poem's found quickly. You have to learn the difference.

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    Jill Jones is Poet of the Month in the June-July issue of Australian Book Review.

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In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Jill Jones reads two poems, 'Memory Lapses and Clues, or Don't Forget to Remember' and 'Bent', which both feature in the 2016 South Australian anthology.

 

 

Memory Lapses and Clues, or Don't Forget to Remember

Amongst discarded data, twigs,
plastic containers, fingernails –
'The unconscious, at all events,
knows no time limit' –
the shape of an ear, marginal facts
blown about by a northerly,
washed by stiffening rain – something
like symptoms, clues, bird spit,
possum fur, leaf miner, blood and bone,
a story or many of what passes
through here daily – what the drift of oil
or rice grains, the tea leaves (ah!),
might say, though they don't
speak at all. Or the message of
bodies or of precedents, portents,
what maps of rain or a star's passage
lay out before us in our days
and nights in the backyard
signs of the time, literally,
as they spark and spit in the sky
and over these grounds.

As women do we conjecture,
look at the evidence, terrestrial margins,
small movements in our yard,
materials under our feet, that move
through our hands and leave
scrap, pictograms and incisions,
odour and decay, diagnosis and taste,
gnosis and art, spider webs brushed away,
cuts from thorns, feelings (ah!),
shopping lists, flourishes of a gesture,
what is seen or touched, nosed
in all that specific and uncertain
divination of the present,
and what presents in the wind
and fleet shadows of today's weather:
for instance, the way a raven calls
and is answered from across the road
by another, with the same
or similar call, at differing intervals?
It's communication you can guess about,
though you don't really know
if it's a system of messaging,
or a type of presence, a big guess,
such as Holmes and cigarette ash,
Poirot and little grey cells,
the psychopathology of everyday life.

Though sky is always opaque as reality,
it bears clues and trajectories,
various evidences blowing like dust,
in fact, are dust – it all happens
as slowly, as quickly as a thought,
the event you know and forget
as someone writing all this down in evidence
against you – but there's a feeling
that can't be formalised or even spoken
as we pass in and out of and into again
the known, or the known knowns,
and the unknowns, the way things
brush past, or the way you fall
in haste, in love, what trickles onto
a porous path, as traverses of skin.

Quote from Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

 Jill Jones

Bent

I am history now
in the scales, the age of sounds

I make sense then drop it
it gets dirty, it breaks
the ants carry it

I am bent at the switch
my tapes of the archive
decay, loops stutter
glitch arias

I am bent at the floor
facts roll under the chair
little dust songs
or songs outside
the parrots know

and I am still my species
struck, listening

Jill Jones

'Memory Lapses and Clues, or Don't Forget to Remember' and 'Bent' appear in 'States of Poetry - South Australia'. You can learn more about States of Poetry and read the full anthologies here

Read Jill Jones' biography in 'States of Poetry - South Australia'

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    In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, Jill Jones reads two poems, 'Memory Lapses and Clues, or Don't Forget to Remember' and 'Bent', which both feature in the 2016 South Australian anthology.

You could regard this latest book by Helen Garner as simply a collection of various essays, a miscellany if you wish, but to do so would be to give it less than its due. There is nothing casual or accidental about Everywhere I Look. Its coherence may, of course, have much to do with Garner's voice, which is consistent and compelling, as is her actual writing style: those sentences that either build detail on detail or present themselves as arguments, hinged on the crucial word 'but', plus the feeling she offers of being so completely present in her work.

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  • Biblio Text Publishing $29.99 pb, 229 pp, 9781925355369

From the cover of Jennifer Maiden's latest book (The Fox Petition, Giramondo, $24 pb, 96 pp, 9781922146946), a wood-cut fox stares the reader down. This foreign, seditious animal is the perfect emblem for Maiden's examination of the xenophobia, conformity, and general moral diminution that she sees around her. Giramondo have given Maiden the liberty of an annual collection; as she says, this prospect 'encourages urgency wonderfully'.

The catalyst for urgency in this book was the NSW Biosecurity Unit's proscription, Border Force-style, of foxes, even as pets. Her poetry here has the freedom of improvisation, spiralling freely around any facts or notions in more or less the key of 'foxness'. When the poet comes across a real fox, for example, 'it stood its ground and looked so patrician', summoning both Charles Fox, that radical petitioner for liberty, and Nye Bevan, with 'the patrician tone of his Welsh miner's voice'. 'If I spoke to the fox without / killing it, I would be charged, but / we once had much in common. A quality / spare and wild with desperation / in its streetlamp eyes, its old headlight / eyes could still suggest a city / in shifting shapes, its identity / aristocratic in lost deceptions.'

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Kenneally reviews 'The Fox Petition' by Jennifer Maiden, 'Breaking the Days' by Jill Jones and 'Exhumed' by Cassandra Atherton
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